Gov. Pat McCrory kicked off a tour of 1,000 businesses in all 100 North Carolina counties Thursday in Cary, speaking of the need to address a skills gap in the workforce.
He outlined a number of approaches, including a greater focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM courses, in K-12 schools as well as community colleges and four-year universities.
Someone in the audience asked if that might include more schools like the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham.
McCrory didn’t give a yes or no, but he did say the state needs to convince high school students that it’s OK to go to a community college; that success isn’t contingent on a bachelor’s degree.
“We’ve got to sell other opportunities in areas that were downplayed in the last 20 to 30 years,” he said, mentioning advanced manufacturing in particular.
Such courses lost popularity because they’re more expensive to teach and require small class sizes, he said. “But the return on investment is very high because everyone who graduated from those courses was getting jobs.”
But it’s not just manufacturing where employees, and potential employees, lack training. McCrory said leaders in education and government need to ask, “How do you find the talent, and how we fill a skills gap ... at all levels of a company?”
One way, he said, is federal immigration reform that would make it easier to attract and retain educated foreigners.
Too many international students excel at North Carolina’s universities but face challenges getting the proper paperwork to find a job and stay here, McCrory said.
Speaking at Deutsche Bank’s global technology center in Cary, he said the state also needs to consider reallocating higher education funding to focus on the kinds of skills companies like the financial giant are looking for – or risk losing them or other large employers.
“They can go anywhere in the world they want at this time,” McCrory said.
Floating the theory of a national Triangle, McCrory said the points are in RTP, Silicon Valley and Boston, with its world-class private universities.
He said North Carolina wins in cost of living and income tax laws – reformed last year in what he said was a controversial but correct change – but lags behind in workforce development.
Earlier this month Forbes ranked Raleigh and Durham as the second- and third-most educated cities in the country. But drive a few counties east, north or south, and college-educated residents are more rare.
Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker, who will accompany McCrory on the business tour, said the state has a solid base of workers in agriculture and manufacturing. But jobs in those industries have been hard to come by in recent years, she said, as businesses have left, downsized or sought more technologically skilled workers.
The state is moving some unemployment offices to community college campuses in an effort to spur jobless people to go back to school, and Decker said her office’s corporate recruiting efforts will focus on industries whose needs fit the skill set of many unemployed and underemployed workers.
Specifically, she said the top three targets are agriculture, auto and aviation.
Decker said the entry of companies in those industries “will bring a core employment to the state that we have been missing.”
The state’s largest certified industrial site, a new 1,800-acre development near Siler City, has been marketed as an auto plant location for the past several months but hasn’t yet announced any potential tenants.